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Sunday, May 22, 2011

How To Choose a Major in College

I read one of those useless summaries of what to major in in college on another site, and I thought I would give it a stab myself.

In the first place, most liberal arts majors are not vocational certificates. Before you choose a major, you should decide what it is you really want to do for a living, and then find out how the people who are currently exercising that profession arrived there. That seems a little better than first majoring in something, and then wondering what you are going to "do" with that major. It may turn out there are many paths to your chosen profession, so you can major in what you are really interested in intellectually and still have a career.

If there is a major that corresponds exactly to your chosen profession, then go for it. You probably don't need my advice in this case. Accounting, say. Beware of majoring in dying industries, though, like newspaper journalism. Actually, I wouldn't choose journalism at all, because to be a journalist you really need to know a lot about the world, not about the mechanics of journalistic form. Choose a more meaty major. By the same token, if you want to be a teacher, major in the subject matter that you will be teaching, not in "education." Just take the bare minimum of ed classes you need to be certified. That will make you more competitive in the best high schools. A school of social work has disadvantages. You might not get as broad an education, and the profession for which you are being trained is low-paying and prone to burn-out.

Beware of "generic" majors like "communications" and "international relations." I'm talking about majors that attract students that don't really know what they want to do, so they choose a major that sounds vaguely interesting and popular. There are a lot of communications majors, so what is going to make you stand out, if you chose the major because it sounded vaguely interesting? And everyone else did too? If you have a passion for sociology, go for it, but don't major in it because that's what your sorority sisters do.

Decide whether the major is going to be it, or whether you are going to get a master's or professional degree afterwards. If the BA is the terminal degree, you have to think sooner rather than later about employment. If you are going on with your studies, you can choose a liberal arts degree with a pragmatic benefit, like mathematics, a foreign language, philosophy, or English. Really good quantitative, writing, and reasoning skills, or bilingualism, are great to have, but they don't translate immediately into a job, in most cases. Nevertheless, those skills are what really make you valuable in the long run.

Ceteris paribus,* major in something that you will be very, very good at. It is probably better to be an exceptional student in a major where you will be at the top of your class, than to major in something where you will be a mediocre student, just because you think that it is the practical thing to do or because someone else tells you to. People really want to hire people who exude genuine confidence bred of competence in something specific, and opportunities are more likely to flow from excellence in something offbeat than from being one communications majors among dozens (not to pick on one field or anything).


Latin, for "all things being equal," ablative absolute. What can I say, I majored in Comparative LIterature.


Clarissa said...

This is absolutely priceless. Is it OK if I print this out and include it in my Freshman Seminar next Fall? (Attributing it to you, of course.) As an advisor, I meet so many of these "communication majors" who are about to graduate and have no idea what it is they will be doing after graduation. Many students take the "communications major" because it sounds like something cool or fashionable but two years into the program cannot explain what it is their program is about.

Jonathan said...

By all means. It's yours to use as you like. It's too late for the seniors, but the freshmen could benefit.

Andrew Shields said...

The problem in Switzerland and Germany is that you have to sign up for your major before you even begin studying, and if you change majors it's like starting all over again. This makes advice like this even more necessary.

And we get the English majors who "like English" and have no idea that studying "English" involves learning linguistics and reading literature (and literary criticism).

Spanish prof said...

In Argentina, we have the same problem that Andrew comments. As a result, I ended up with a major in Political Science and International Relations. I knew way before it wasn't what I wanted to do, but it was easier to finish those and then change career paths than to switch majors then.

If my experience taught me something, was that there is always time to find out what you want to do, or to change paths. Maybe my perspective is not the best: I come from an upper-middle class family in Buenos Aires, and my parents were willing to support me as long as I was studying. However, I don't think you "need" to know what you want to do and where do you want to work when you are 21. It's obviously good to have some general idea, but I always tell my students they don't need to have their next 20 years of life planned by the time they finish college.

My advice would be: major in a rigorous degree, whatever it is. It will give you the necessary skills to survive later in life.